At the beginning of the month, the Miami Dolphins weren’t sure how they would win another football game. A little more than three weeks later, they’re eager for a shot at the reigning Super Bowl champions.
Looking to improve to 3-0 under interim coach Dan Campbell, the resurgent Dolphins try to avoid a seventh consecutive road loss to the undefeated New England Patriots on Thursday night.
Miami players wondered if they had bottomed out following a lackluster effort during a 27-14 loss to the New York Jets in London on Oct. 4. Joe Philbin was fired the next day and replaced by Campbell, the spirited tight ends coach who believed there was plenty of talent on the roster worthy of a turnaround.
So far, he’s been right.
In Campbell’s two games, the Dolphins (3-3) outscored Tennessee and Houston 82-36. Though those teams are a combined 3-10, the results have Miami back to .500 and feeling revitalized.
”With the changes that happened, we honestly feel like it was a new season,” linebacker Kelvin Sheppard said. ”That’s from the top down. That’s what our head man stands before us and says. We’ve all bought into that, and that’s truly what we believe.”
Campbell believes that success can continue this week in Foxborough, though he knows the challenge is quite daunting. Of the 21 interim coaches in the NFL since 2001, none won his first three games.
”We really need this win,” Campbell said. ”We’re capable of beating this team. They’re not going to be easy. They never are. You’ve got Tom Brady, you’ve got the great (coach) Bill Belichick.”
Miami has dropped 12 of the last 14 at New England, and was outscored 96-30 in its three trips under Philbin. The Patriots (6-0), meanwhile, are off to their best start since the perfect regular season of 2007 and have lost once in the last 22 home games – including the playoffs.
However, in Campbell’s short time as coach his players have come to believe that anything is possible.
"There’s a storm coming, man, like coach Campbell says all the time,” receiver Jarvis Landry said. ”He took over as head coach, and that was one of the first things: ‘There’s a storm coming. We’re going to wake these giants up.’"
In order for the Dolphins to take down the reigning giants of the NFL, they must maintain an offense that’s totaled 937 yards over the last two games after averaging 314.8 in the first four. Ryan Tannehill has thrown six of his 13 touchdowns in the last two and was not intercepted in Sunday’s 44-26 win over Houston after being picked off seven times in the previous three.
Lamar Miller ran for 131 yards and no TDs in the first four games but 288 with two scores in the last two. He recorded 236 yards from scrimmage against the Texans while sitting out the second half.
On the other side of the ball, Miami has 10 sacks under Campbell after recording one for Philbin. They yielded an average of 160.5 rushing yards in the first four games but 134 total in the last two.
”The Dolphins have played great the last two weeks in all areas of the game,” Belichick said. ”They’ve got plays coming from everywhere.
"They’re playing faster. They are more aggressive."
That’s enough for the Patriots to increase their focus, especially on a short week following a hard-fought 30-23 win over the Jets.
Plagued by injuries, New England dressed 18 offensive players and endured 11 dropped passes but still scored at least 30 points in a fifth consecutive contest. Brady threw for 355 yards, and both of his TDs came while going 14 of 17 in the fourth quarter to help erase a four-point deficit.
”I thought we played better as the game went on,” said Brady, who also led the Patriots with 15 rushing yards and scored on the ground. ”We made the plays when we needed to make them. I think that was the important thing.”
Rob Gronkowski caught a season-high 11 passes for 108 yards and one of those TDs.
Though the Patriots aren’t necessarily fond of playing Thursday night games, they’ve won their last five. During the season-opening 28-21 win over Pittsburgh, Brady connected with Gronkowski on three of his four TD passes.
”I don’t want to sit here and continue to dwell on that," Gronkowski said of Thursday games. "We’re playing Thursday and we’ve got to be ready to go and we’re always excited when we get a chance to take the field.”
A winner in his last eight home starts against the Dolphins, Brady is 12-1 when facing them at Foxborough.
Tannehill has thrown five TDs and one INT while helping Miami win its last two at home against the Patriots, but has three touchdowns with five picks in going 0-3 at New England.